“And a child shall lead them.” The Rev. Dr. Neil O’Farrell shares a nativity story to beat the rush.
She told me she’d hold the door open for me. I told her I’d be on time. She lived in a sprawling public housing complex in Washington, DC. One squat brick building just like the next squat brick building. One cul-de-sac just like all the others. She gave me the address, but this was in the days before GPS. I asked her how I’d know I was in the right place. She told me because she’d be at the door, and that I should look up for the window. No more detail.
I was volunteering for home-based hospice care. Her son was dying of AIDS. I had set the time in the late afternoon because I thought it would be easier to find my way if there were still some light out.
I turned into the road in front of her brick apartment building. Indeed, she was waiting for me at the door, and when I looked up, there was a window where someone had painstakingly taped multi-color twinkle lights to spell out “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” They were blinking on and off. I knew I was in the right place.
I parked the car and met her at the door. I can’t remember her name among the so many others I helped out with. I introduced myself and we headed up the three flights into the apartment. There was a tidy living room, threadbare but immaculate.
She asked if I wanted to see her son. He’d just eaten, she said, so he was sleeping soundly. I told her we should then let him sleep. He was lying in a bed with crisp sheets. There wasn’t much aspect of death on his face, and his little room was absolutely clean, with none of the smells that I’d come to associate with the final days of someone’s life.
We went to sit on the couch and she gave me a glass of water. I always take the water if I’m asked, even if I’m not thirsty, because it’s a palpable connection. I can hold something real in my hand. An offering will have been made and taken.
I asked her a couple of questions about her son’s health, and she told me what she could, apologizing because she said she didn’t know much about medicine, and his being sick was such a surprise to her. Gay, he’d been living on the down low.
“He’s such a wonderful man,” she said. “Let me tell you about him.” We settled down deep into the cushions of the couch, the evening light slipping away into darkness. Behind us—the only light in the room—were the twinkle lights blinking on and off.
“We had it rough,” she started softly, looking away. “His father was a mean drunk. He left the baby alone, but he hit me and my boy often. I tried to put myself between me and my son so I would be the one he hit, not him.” She was getting more comfortable because she was looking into my face more and more as she softly told her story.
“My husband went on benders. He did that pretty often. It was ugly. I was glad when he finally passed out.
“Then he came over to me, my son. He was about seven going on eight—just started school the year before. He took me by the hand and looked straight at me. He said, “Mama. Mama, it’s getting so much worse. He’s hurting me, but he’s really hurting you.
“We can’t keep living this way. Something real bad will happen. I’m too little to help very much. And then there’s the baby. We’ve gotta get away. This isn’t right, what’s happening. You have to be the one who does it. It won’t be easy, but I’ll be here with you. I’ll keep holding your hand.”
She told me she knew he was right. Like so many women, she had become trapped in the abuse. And she was afraid because she had two young children, and she didn’t know exactly where she’d go. No woman in that situation should have no idea where to go for safety and help.
Before her husband came home the next day, she threw some things in a bag, took what she needed for the baby, and they went. Like he promised, her son held her hand tightly as they virtually ran from their apartment, as fast as they could, notwithstanding she was holding a baby, and his little legs couldn’t run very fast.
In a few blocks, she saw a policeman. People in her neighborhood tried not to have anything to do with the cops. The cops arrested you or worse. But she didn’t have anyone else she could turn to for help, and she was afraid that her husband would find them.
She quickly told the police officer that she was essentially a homeless mother, and she needed to get away from an abusive husband. She didn’t have much money, and it was cold outside. She needed to get the baby and her son warm for the night.
The policeman did all the right things. That night, he did his dark blue uniform proud. He asked her a couple of questions, and then he took the three of them to a shelter where they could get social services. It was a shelter for homeless women and their children. She already knew there were other women like her; she just didn’t know how many until that night. But she was finally safe and so were her children.
Little by little, things got pieced together. Her son enrolled in another school, and the baby was taken care of by a nursery school. Her husband had no way of finding them. She found a low-paid job, but it was something. Then she found a better job. For a long time, they lived hand to mouth, with whatever government support they could scrounge, and other private help from here and there. They joined a church. She wanted the children to learn about Jesus.
As time went on, things slowly, slowly got better. Both kids, when they were older, got little jobs so to bring some more money into the household coffers. Luckily, the kids both took to school. The daughter was living with her boyfriend now, and they were talking about marriage and kids.
As he got older, the son got more distant, as if he were looking for something he wasn’t finding. She only now knew that he was living between two worlds. “I only wish he’d told me,” she said. “I’d understand. After all, he’d saved our lives.”
She looked from me over to his bedroom. “He was my little man. He had to grow up so fast. He grew up faster than I did. He knew what we needed to do. I didn’t. He knew.
“He held my hand the whole way.”
The dusk had faded to darkness. We still sat on the couch with the window at our back, silently. The twinkle lights were our only illumination.
“Happy birthday, Jesus.”
“Happy birthday, Jesus.”
“Happy birthday, Jesus ….”
Photo: galgano / flickr